Glen Campbell’s announcement this week that Alzheimer's disease would force him to stop touring has some mental-health experts asking: Did the
country music legend’s well-known battles with drug and alcohol contribute to his condition?
Campbell, who turned 77 Monday, has been praised by addiction-medicine specialists in recent years for openly acknowledging his past struggles with alcohol and drug abuse — particularly cocaine — beginning at the zenith of his musical career in the 1970s. He had reportedly been clean and sober for the past 25 years.
But now that Alzheimer's has robbed Campbell of key mental functions and the memories he built up as lifelong entertainer, the story of his life — as a wunderkind session guitarist, talented singer, actor, and one-time member of the Beach Boys — may best be remembered as a cautionary tale about the long-term hazards of addiction, alcoholism, and hard living.
Ronald Devere, M.D., a board-certified neurologist and fellow of the American Academy of Neurology, explains that drug and alcohol abuse doesn’t necessarily cause Alzheimer’s, but can damage brain cells in ways that leave alcoholics and addicts more susceptible to the ravages of the debilitating disease.
“I don’t think anybody has proven if you have drugs or alcohol on board you’re going to get Alzheimer’s, but the key is that your [mental] reserve is really impaired by them,” says Dr. Devere, director of the Alzheimer ’s Disease and Memory Disorders Center in Austin, Texas.
“In other words your memory and thinking is impaired with alcohol and drug abuse, and if you get Alzheimer’s on top of that, then it’s that much worse ... and you’re more likely to shows signs and symptoms.”
For that reason, Dr. Devere tells Newsmax Health, highly educated individuals may not be as seriously affected by Alzheimer’s as those with less education.
“They have a better reserve,” he explains. “That doesn’t mean you won’t get the disease, but you’re in a better position.”
Russell Blaylock, M.D., one of the nation’s foremost authorities on brain health and Alzheimer’s, notes that cocaine is particularly harmful to the brain, and that drugs and alcohol have different — but significant — impacts on nerve cells.
“Both cause a dropout of neurons [nerve cells] and increase excitotoxicity by separate mechanisms,” Dr. Blaylock tells Newsmax Health. “Cocaine is especially linked to excitotoxic damage in the brain and in the areas affected in [Alzheimer’s disease].”
Dr. Blaylock, author of the Blaylock Wellness Report newsletter
, added that physical exercise and activity have been shown to prevent the development of Alzheimer’s or slow its progression, particularly in early stages. But for people with advanced cases “it is impossible to do much exercise” and the ability to continue working — particularly as an entertainer — would “depend on a number of factors including genetics.”
He adds: “Dietary changes, exercise, and use of supplements that reduce inflammation and excitotoxicity … and enhance brain energy levels will significantly slow the course [of the disease]. Performing can be quite stressful and one should avoid stress — yet, the elation one gets from the jubilant crowd can be beneficial.”
Both Ronald Reagan and Charleton Heston, for instance, continued to speak publicly for some time after they were initially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, until the symptoms advanced, he notes. And some musicians are able to retain their ability to perform, even in advanced cases, research has shown.
“We call that performance memory,” Dr. Devere explains. “It’s like when you learn how to ride a bike and you never really forget. If you like music, it’s going to trigger those automatic things in the brain that were not destroyed by Alzheimer’s. That’s why … music therapy can be helpful to many patients.”
But, eventually, severe memory loss and other symptoms overwhelm the ability to perform, as the disease progresses.
“For people in the public view, it can be very embarrassing to struggle with [confused] thoughts,” Dr. Blaylock explains. “Most of us can understand this.”
Campbell made the announcement to retire from touring this week because his advancing symptoms made performance all but impossible.
His wife, Kim Campbell, told Associated Press her husband still records music in the studio but the disease has progressed too far to allow him to continue touring.
"Glen still wants to record, but it's just a matter of if he's able to," she said. "It just gets more and more difficult for him all the time."
Campbell will release a new album, See You There, on July 30, featuring new recordings of his most popular songs, including "Wichita Lineman," ''By the Time I Get to Phoenix," and ''Rhinestone Cowboy."
It was recorded by Julian Raymond during the same sessions that produced Campbell's last studio album of new material, 2011's Ghost on the Canvas.
Drs. Blaylock and Devere both say progress is being made in Alzheimer’s research.
“There is growing evidence that a number of things can help slow the course and even reverse some of the symptoms,” says Dr. Blaylock. “Blocking certain inflammatory cytokines … can be a significant benefit and most things that are of benefit either reduce brain inflammation, reduce excitotoxicity, or increase brain energy production or all three. The only drugs to show any benefit are known to reduce excitotoxicity and inflammation. A number of supplements have a greater beneficial effect on immunoexcitotoxicity and are far safer than any known drug.”
Dr. Devere adds that there is significant reason for hope for the estimated 5.2 million Americans with Alzheimer’s Exercise, cognitive therapy (including art and music therapy), and a range of medications — including Aricept, Hexalon, Razadyne, and Namenda — have all been shown to slow the progression of the disease.
“The glass is half full, not empty — that’s my motto,” he says. “If you have the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s it is treatable, and there are four or five things that we push and it slows the decline. So it is treatable.”
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